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Experts: School Tornado Safe Rooms Costly but Worth Expense

Discussion continues in the wake of the Moore, Okla., tornado, which destroyed or severely damaged three schools, on whether tornado safe rooms need to be added to Oklahoma schools and others within Tornado Alley.

None of the schools, including Plaza Towers Elementary School where seven students died, had safe rooms in its buildings. Safe areas were included in Moore schools rebuilt after the May 1999 Oklahoma City tornado, but that did not include the three struck by the May 2013 tornado.

An article in the Aug. 18 edition of The Wall Street Journal explained that it would cost about $1 billion to build safe rooms in Oklahoma schools.

About 1,110 Oklahoma public schools, or 61.5 percent of the state's public schools have no type of shelter, according to a survey released on Sept. 26 by Oklahoma State Rep. Joe Dorman. Of the 695 schools that do have shelter, only 271 of them have a shelter that is designed to withstand 250 mph winds.

"I think it is unconscionable that schools are not required to have tornado shelters," Richard Little, a visiting research scholar in disaster mitigation at Renasselaer Polytechnic Institute, said.

"If you stretch $1 billion over 30 years, I mean, let's say the state sells a bond. It wouldn't be that much because [the federal government] would pitch in. Then, that number is not so big, and if you divide that by the number of school children from K-12 in Oklahoma, it's not that much money.

"I happen to think the life of a child is worth more than a couple of thousand dollars," Little said.

Safe rooms are very important in the heart of the Dixie and Plains tornado alleys, Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Executive of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions Mike Smith said.

"But we need to be clear. The safe area does not have to be exactly the same construction as a retrofitted home. Plus, there are some schools in the central U.S. that at least that have basements. If there is a basement, a safe area is not needed. The basement does the trick," Smith said.

Complicating matters is how well-built a school shelter should be.

Don't look at the Enhanced Fujita Scale for guidance, Smith said. The scale is based on tornado damage to estimate wind speed; it runs from EF-0, or 65 to 85 mph, up to EF-5, more than 200 mph. The original Fujita Scale, developed by T. Theodore Fujita of the University of Chicago, ran from F-0, less than 73 mph, to F5, 261 to 318 mph.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale came under criticism after the National Weather Service in August reduced the strength of the May 31 El Reno, Okla., tornado from an EF-5 to an EF-3, or between 136 and 165 mph.

"I recommend it [the Enhanced Fujita Scale] be ignored in favor of the original Fujita Scale, which is more accurate," Smith said.

"Unless there is a basement, it is probably impractical for to build a school that is safe in 300 mph gusts. I would build them up to F-3 (162 to 209 mph), which should be adequate since the mathematical odds of F-5 winds hitting a school are very low."

On average, it will take $1 million to build a school safe room to the current standard established by the International Code Council for such shelters, Engineer and Meteorologist Tim Marshall said.

It doesn't matter whether the room is built above or below ground as both work equally well, he said.

Safe rooms work well, especially in the Oklahoma City area where violent tornadoes are common.

"There are only a few problems. All of those people had doors that were bent by debris and they couldn't get out," Marshall said. "Some of the new designs have escape hatches, which are a good idea."

The people weren't trapped for long because they had told neighbors or authorities about the shelters and were freed within a couple hours, Marshall, who evaluates tornado and other storm damage, said.

A safe room under the International Code Council standard is rated to handle 250 mph, almost the equivalent of an EF-5 tornado.

It gets very, very complicated, Little said.

"What do you design for? How do you pay on the insurance side? You can get into: 'Who is liable? You designed this way and you should have designed in that way.' Those are all things that we need to talk about, which haven't been discussed," Little said.

The Del City Elementary School, located in Del City, an Oklahoma City suburb, has three classrooms for its safe room that can handle a total of 700 children and faculty in all three rooms, Marshall said. The room is basically a concrete box that is tied together with rebar and tied into the foundation.

"Everything is tied into everything. They all help each part of the room," Marshall said.

An alcove was built in front of the door to prevent it from being blocked by debris.

Two efforts are under way in Oklahoma to raise funds to build safe rooms in schools.

One is a legislative effort, spearheaded by Dorman, D-Rush Springs. Dorman has proposed a $500 million bond issue that would use Oklahoma's franchise tax to fund safe room construction. A 90-day window opened on Sept. 18 for supporters to obtain at least the signatures of at least 160,000 registered Oklahoma voters to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The second is a fund started by Shelter Oklahoma Schools, a non-profit group. The group said it will use the money to help local schools and municipalities build safe rooms and shelters.

Taxpayers have to make a hard decision about their children's safety, Marshall said.

"It's pretty expensive for a school to have a $1 million shelter," he said. "It's up to the citizens to approve a referendum for this because it will increase taxes to fund this."

Del City voters overwhelmingly supported shelters, Marshall said. Three have been built in the last couple years with more being proposed.

Marshall said it makes him mad to think the Moore schools had no safe rooms.

"Seven children died needlessly," he said. "I know this affects the community and the families. There was no reason for the loss of life. Those schools were just pulverized.

"Tornadoes in central Oklahoma are a way of life. We shouldn't be surprised. There were two violent tornadoes in Moore before this. I'm hoping the people of Moore will approve shelters."

May marked the third time since 1999 that Marshall visited Moore, Okla., to evaluate tornado damage.

While a safe room is the best option, every school should have primary and backup plans to receive a weather warning and have battery backup on their alarm system, Smith said. A plan that alerts the entire building and gets everyone to safety within 60 seconds should also be in place.

"How do you protect the largest number of people? You can replace houses. You can replace school buildings. You can do all of that. But people die who can't be replaced," Little said.